The greatest one day classic takes place this Sunday. Huge crowds, narrow lanes, rough cobbles, steep hills and more await along the 255km obstacle course. This is an event of national importance in Belgium.
The headlines look to the rivalry between Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet only there are plenty of others in contention. Here’s a preview of the race with the route, riders, TV and more.
The Route: it’s not really a full tour of Flanders as the race starts in Antwerp and then heads south-west to reach the finish town of Oudenaarde after just 95km. From here the race starts looping around the the hills of the Flemish Ardennes. Viewed on a map the route resembles a ball of wool.
The Cobbles and the Climbs: Jacques Brel was wrong. The song about “that flat country that is mine”, Mijn Vlakke Land is right about the grey skies and crackling winds but skips the steep ridges to be found in the Flemish Ardennes. When the race arrives it’s all about positioning and everyone wants to be at the front because if a rider ahead has a mechanical, crash or merely slows it takes a lot of effort to overtake as accelerating on cobbles or uphill uses so much more energy. Watch for the density of riders at key points in race, the racing is fierce just to reach the start of these strategic sections with riders fighting for place, almost a combat sport. The Kapelmuur comes with 95km to go, too early to be strategic but a crowd-pleaser and a leg-sapper. Here are the chief climbs:
The Koppenberg (45km to go): “discovered” in 1976 when a local informed race organisers about a narrow cobbled climb with a 22% gradient, rough cobbles and often damp on a dry day. It was used every year until Jesper Skibby crashed in the 1987 race and a race car, with the peloton closing in behind, had to drive over his bike with the Dane’s feet still into the pedals. Now it’s made a comeback and features late in the race. It’s probably the hardest climb of the day and if it doesn’t pick the winner it thins the field. Look to see who emerges over the top and how smooth they look on the way up.
Oude Kwaremont (145km, 55km and 17km to go): the odd one out as it’s not short, it’s not steep and it’s not all cobbled. Instead it’s 2.2km long and a meagre 4.2% average; it touches 11% midway. If 2.2km doesn’t sound like much, it’s an effort of more than five minutes of which four are spend on the pavé making it a tiring boneshaker.
Paterberg (51km to go, 13km to go): the Kwaremont is chased by the Paterberg, it’s only 400m long but is short, steep and very cobbled. It’s not a normal road, it was built by a farmer for the fun of it and lined by fans who enjoy a giant screen TV and beers – this is the final climb of the race. It has broken many a rider with 240km in their legs.
The Finish: the last section from Kerkhove to Oudenaarde is eight kilometres long on a flat wide road all the way to the line. The most unremarkable of roads, there are no sharp corners, roundabouts or hills. The featureless nature matters as it’s long enough to allow riders to regroup and offers no ambush opportunities for a late attack. The final kilometre has the tiniest of rises to the line.
Peter Sagan has been central to several races so far this season only to go home empty handed. Forget sideshows about post-race candy and his interview styles, Paris-Roubaix has always been his big goal this spring but here he finds a course to suit him and can look repeat last year’s race where he went clear in a select move before going solo on the final climb of the Paterberg. As long as he can force, or just be part of, the selection in the final 30 minutes then he has the luxury of deciding whether to use his explosive power on the final climb or to sit tight for the sprint to the finish line. He might have lost several races but the long distance and the proximity of the final climbs to the finish makes this race less tactical, there will be less time for rivals to conspire against him.
Greg Van Avermaet is the other top favoriet. He’s been winning left, right and centre across Flanders and after his successful season in 2016 the Ronde has been his big goal, more so since he crashed out a year ago. He’s versatile on the hills, tactically sharp and sprints cleverly from a sharp group plus he’s got a strong team to support him, all of the BMC Racing squad could have their day in a semi-classic but they’re fully behind “GVA”. The rivalry with Sagan is a valid contest, if the two come to the finish it’s a close call in sprint. Sagan has the power but GVA has the guile and after 260km this counts for plenty.
Who do Quick Step back? Whoever is in front surely. There’s no set plan and the Belgian super team will look to have strength in numbers in the final hour. Philippe Gilbert is looking in great shape with two podiums in Dwars Door Vlaanderen and the GP E3 Harelbeke plus the win this week in the Three Days of De Panne so he seems the obvious choice and what better than the Belgian champion to win this national popularity contest? Indeed one big reason behind his switch to Quick Step was to race the Ronde and fill in the Flemish gaps in his palmarès and popularity. Local son of the soil Yves Lampaert has also found winning ways and if Dwars Door Vlaanderen isn’t the big league yet, those who win it often go on to bigger things. Niki Terpstra is the ice cold poker player as usual but since he can’t sprint he’ll probably have to try something long range. Zdeněk Štybar can still feature but he’s 31 and still hunting that big classic. Can Tom Boonen do it? Let’s entertain the dream and more rationally he must be close to peak form since Paris-Roubaix is the following Sunday but he seems less sharp on the climbs and perhaps there’s some workplace politics where he can work for team mates in order to gain their loyalty on the roads to Roubaix?
Alexander Kristoff is in form only the results haven’t shown it. The 2015 winner says he’s been hitting some of his best power numbers in racing and training so feels a big result is due but so far the Katusha leader “only” has a stage win in the Three Days of De Panne to show, even if he did also win the bunch sprint in Sanremo. Tony Martin and Nils Politt offer support plans. His sprint strength and stamina are his weapons but will also prompt others to attack him in order to avoid him.
Sep Vanmarcke has had two of podium places in the Ronde before and the story had been about finally landing the big win. He still can but after third place in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad he’s had torrid spring with a rib injury from the Strade Bianche which meant missing races and now he’s chasing his form. So perhaps he’d sign today for a podium? Even if he wants the win achieving it isn’t going to be easy, so how Peter Sagan dispatched him last year. Dylan van Baarle and Sebastian Langeveld seem like top-10 options too.
Trek-Segafredo bring John Degenkolb and Jasper Stuyven. The former seems more suited to the course as he’s punchier on the climbs and finishes fast but the pair can play off each other. Fabio Felline has had some top-10s and Edward Theuns took a second place to Kristoff this week in a stage of the Three Days of De Panne. It all points to a strong team but so far the team hasn’t cut through in the cobbled classics, too often the race has ridden away from them.
Team Sky have Milan-Sanremo in the bag but this has masked their absence so far from the cobbled classics with Luke Rowe‘s 6th place in the Omloop their best result so far, bettering his fifth place in the Ronde could be difficult, let alone the win. Ian Stannard and Gianni Moscon should feature and you sense their chances will be better in Paris-Roubaix.
If things are fraught in the Trek and Sky team cars, the anxiety must be even worse over at Lotto-Soudal as they’ve been near invisible this spring although their kopman Tiesj Benoot has had three top-10s so far. Converting this into a win seems hard so he and his team may have to take risks and force earlier selections. Still he climbs very well and so the likes of the Oude Kwaremont suit him. Tony Gallopin has been targeting this race but crashes have been targeting him too so his missed racing and training because of light injuries.
Lotto-Jumbo are another discreet team, a far cry from the Rabobank days but maybe that’s no bad thing given the chronic doping in the team back then; today the story is also of a diminished budget and team leader Lars Boom‘s best result in a classic this year has been 79th place.
Orica-Scott will feel confident with
Jens Keukeleire and Luke Durbridge. Durbridge has been in great shape since the Strade Bianche but converting this into a win is a big ask, he probably can’t outsprint many of the names above and doesn’t seem to have the explosive force to zip away either, see how Gilbert got the better of him in De Panne; so “Durbo” could feature and even make the podium but that top step seems very lofty.
Oliver Naesen is the best of the rest, Ag2r La Mondiale aren’t normally a team you associate with the classics but Alexis Gougeard likes the early attacks (whisper it: because he fears fighting for position in the bunch) and Stijn Vandenbergh makes a fine captain. Naesen’s third place in Harelbeke was no fluke but winning De Ronde?
Finally a quick roll call of the others. Arnaud Démare has been out of the results but unlucky with punctures and crashes but this course could have too many climbs for him, Paris-Roubaix is the big goal. Edvald Boasson Hagen gets the copy-paste “due a big win in the spring classics but we’ve been saying that ever since he won the 2009 Gent-Wevelgem and it’s not happened yet” stock comment. Sonny Colbrelli sprints well and can get over a climb or two but after a decent start to the season he’s really suited to the Amstel rather than this. Astana are still searching for a win which suggests their chances of winning in the biggest one day race so far this year are low but Oscar Gatto, Matti Breschel and Michael Valgren are all conceivable top-10 finishers. Among the wildcard invitees Wanty-Gobert’s Guillaume Van Keirsbulck could feature. 2008 and 2009 winner Stijn Devolder is still doing his thing with Verandas Willems and at the other end of the age scale first year pro Simone Consonni impressed in De Panne, he’ll be confident and a top-20 would do him nicely.
|Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan|
|Philippe Gilbert, Alexander Kristoff|
|John Degenkolb, Sep Vanmarcke, Oliver Naesen|
|Stuyven, Benoot, Theuns, Rowe, Durbridge, Keukeleire, Felline|
Weather: (updated Sunday AM) sunshine and a top temperature of 16°C. A light, swirling 10km/h breeze means the weather looks unlikely to be tactical.
TV: the race starts at 10.30am CET and the finish is forecast for 4.55pm CET. There’s pre-race coverage starting at 9.30am with footage of the roll out on Belgian TV (Sporza) and then various look-ins. Live coverage will resume at 1.30pm and the Kapelmuue will feature around 2.40pm. The crucial Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg-Koppenberg trippel is forecast to start around 3.40pm.
Women’s Race: there’s an expert preview over at cyclingtips including details of TV coverage – the final 90 minutes are supposed to be live – and the locations of the free, unrestricted livestream.